By the year 2021, Ford will mass produce vehicles with full-autonomy–no steering wheel, gas pedal, brake pedal, or driver required–Ford CEO Mark Fields said in an announcement on Tuesday.
“This is a transformational moment in our industry, and a transformational moment in our company,” Fields said. “We will make people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves.”
Ford will have a unique position in the race towards fully-autonomous vehicles, Fields said, by expanding its presence in Silicon Valley, acquiring and partnering with businesses that will help develop the technology required, and developing a smart mobility plan that will involve ridesharing.
“It’s now clear that the next decade will be defined by the autonomous vehicle,” he said.
The creation of a fully-autonomous vehicle, Fields said, is meant to address safety, social, and environmental issues.
“Cars are going to be used more efficiently, saving people time, decreasing pollution, reducing traffic congestion,” said Fields. He compared the news to the “disruptive” idea, back when Ford began, that it would bring the automobile to millions of people around the world. The new move, he said, fits into Ford’s mission to “make people’s lives better by making transportation accessible.”
“Today, we are no longer just an auto company, we are a mobility company,” said Fields. “That’s been the spirit of Ford.”
Ford will expand its Silicon Valley presence through its creation of a research campus and will double its staff next year. The goal is to attract engineers, researchers, and designers–all of whom will “come to be part of a unique opportunity: The opportunity to help change the world together,” Fields said.
How will Ford bring autonomous vehicles to life? Raj Nair, CTO of Ford, said that “we see the greatest opportunity when we remove the driver from the responsibility altogether.” They are pursuing level 4 (fully-autonomous) vehicles because it removes the burden of driving for millions who are unable to drive.
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“Today, we’re looking at this differently, we abandoned the stepping-stone approach and will take the full leap to a fully-autonomous, level-four capability,” he said.
In technical terms, Nair said Ford will take a unique approach, a hybrid model based on using sensors that detect objects, and compare it to maps and a direct approach, which uses the same data but directly interprets the objects in the environment, and requires more advanced software. By the end of this year, Nair said, Ford will have tripled the development of its research fleet, making it the largest of the major manufacturers. Next year, they will triple it again.
To develop its autonomous driving capability, Ford will invest in several companies:
- Velodyne: The world’s LiDAR leader. Sensors that help vehicles self-navigate.
- SAIPS: A machine learning company based in Israel, which uses object detection to help vehicles learn about surroundings.
- Nirenberg Neuroscience: A device for returning sight to blind patients by cracking neural code that brings sight to the brain.
- Civil Maps: Will use AI to develop 3D, high-resolution maps of surroundings.
Ford hasn’t been as quick to discuss its plans toward developing an autonomous vehicle. Unlike Tesla’s, it doesn’t have something like Autopilot currently available to drivers. This is because “we are not in a race to make announcements,” Fields said. “We are in a race to do what’s right for our customers.”
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“There’s a revolution in connectivity of average folks, the likes of which we haven’t seen until recently,” said Fields. “This is at the core of what we do as a company.”
Bryant Walker Smith, an expert in legal aspects of autonomous driving, said that Ford’s move points to how it plans to emphasize transportation as a service, since the Ford customers will be sharing the vehicles.
“This is a good thing for everyone,” said Smith. “Users won’t have to pay upfront for a car that could be obsolete in a few years, and Ford won’t have to depend on these customers to maintain those vehicles. Users can pay-as-they-ride, and Ford can get-paid-as-they-ride.”
“Ford isn’t promising a vehicle that can go everywhere and do everything that a human driver in a conventional vehicle can today,” said Smith. “Uber is probably the best model for predicting what driverless taxis will look like in a few years: They will be lots of places, but not everywhere. And they will be even more transformative.”
Still, Fields claims that Ford’s autonomous car will “change the way the world moves again. And creating it is part of the DNA of our company.”